The Art of Adrienne Shelly

Monday, May 30, 2011

During the year Adrienne and I worked together on I’ll Take You There, our professional relationship gradually evolved into a more personal one, one which deepened over the following years. Eventually, she became my best friend, more important than the women I dated at the time. Unlike anybody I’d ever known previously, she made it her business to transform my love life, and try to make me happier. I won’t claim that I was her best friend, because I believe she did the same thing for other people, and was equally precious to them.

Adrienne’s method for fixing my life involved setting me up on dates with her friends. These women were all remarkable—extraordinary in their beauty and accomplishments. She honored me by maintaining that I deserved women as impressive as that. The fact that none of these setups became an actual girlfriend (although one is a friend to this day) was beside the point. On the other hand, she never liked any of the women I found on my own. It was the opposite; she thought I was too good for them.

The odd thing about this was in her life, she went through what she considered a long string of unhappy experiences with men. As she wrote:

In my twenties I had every bad kind of relationship imaginable. I questioned just about every move I made and I failed an awful lot in a variety of ways--sometimes loud and noisily, and sometimes in small subtly painful ways. There was unrest, boredom, a feeling of hopelessness, powerlessness, and a garden variety angst. Mostly, (modest film career or no modest film career, depending on the month) there was a lot of wandering. I guess what I was really doing was searching, and trying to figure out who the hell I was. And being rather clumsy.

While she was so confident and upbeat about every other aspect of her life, this compartment of her personality could make her feel melancholy and lost. Adrienne turned this into material by dramatizing this side of herself in her movies, to comic effect.  From her first short, Urban Legend, she began her films with the lead character desolate after a breakup, or worse, trapped in a smothering relationship, as in Waitress:


That was always her magic trick in her films and in her life.  She could use laughter as judo.  As she wrote:

Humor has been an important asset for me. It was an important part of my childhood. I never wanted to be a great actress--I admired Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett long before I knew who Marlon Brando was. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were my heroes. And when bad (and rather strange) things happened during my childhood, like the sudden death of my father when I was 12, or the sudden paralysis of the left side of my face from Bell's Palsy when I was 15 (not a good age, by the way, for either of those things to happen), it was a saving grace that I could find the funny within the painful and the unheard of.

If you don’t know what Bell’s Palsy looks like, Sylvester Stallone has had it since childhood, and Fox reporter Greta Von Susteren has it now. I’m sure it was a devastating challenge for Adrienne to get through, but the only complaint she expressed to me about it was that people would look at her with this “oh, you poor thing” look on their face. Anyway, eventually her Bell’s Palsy went away.

I never found out if the men in her life were as bad as she said they were.  There are two sides to every story and I only got to hear hers.  As did anybody who saw her movies, particularly Earl in Waitress, who got on a list of the “10 Worst Movie Husbands.”  Here are some others from her rogue’s gallery:

She also wrote a hilarious essay about Oprah Winfrey’s increasing frustration with her endless non-marriage to her fiancé, Stedman Graham. (It was read at Adrienne’s memorial by one of Adrienne’s closest friends, actress Pamela Gray.)

But some of Adrienne’s portraits of men weren’t humorous at all:

These characters stood for a world that was chaotic and precarious, where in a second a woman could be selfishly used or much worse. In her unproduced screenplay “The Morgan Stories,” there is a both a rape and an act of lethal violence.

On the other hand, Adrienne had a fondness for sweet, guileless men in her movies, who refuse to give up their courtship of the women they sincerely love. Waitress fans will fondly remember Ogie (Eddie Jemison), unstoppable in his wooing of Adrienne’s character Dawn, and Alan North plays a similar role in I’ll Take You There.

The open-heartedness of these men leads into the other side of Adrienne, which I mentioned before—her confident, ebullient, joyful side, overwhelmed with boundless love that she directed towards her art and to her friends. Some might call it presumptuous for me to attribute this aspect of her personality to her biography, but I feel certain that her joyful strength came from the boundless love her mother gave her. Adrienne never stopped saying that her mother made her feel that she could do anything. In her telling, her mother’s love was unconditional, grand, glorious--one colossal sun of love. Adrienne told me again and again about the depths of her appreciation for the gifts her mother gave her.

And it was this side of Adrienne that created a character that turns up again and again in her movies—a character I call “The Teacher.” Usually the Teacher is old and eccentric, or even outright crazy, although Ally Sheedy’s Bernice in I’ll Take You There is young and nuts. Sometimes there’s a little touch of magic in them like Jan Leslie Harding’s homeless woman in Urban Legend, Louise Lasser’s fortune teller in Sudden Manhattan, and Ben Vereen in I’ll Take You There. There’s not just one Teacher per film; I count four Teachers in I’ll Take You There. (Adrienne played one of them.) The Teacher Adrienne characters are the catalysts to get the mopey Adrienne characters to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get out of bed. Interestingly, the depressed Adrienne character can also serve up magical assistance to others, as Jenna in Waitress does with her makeover for Dawn and her magical pies for everybody.



In a nutshell, that’s my formula for Adrienne’s storytelling: a virtual conversation between the two parts of her personality, told with quirky humor and absurdity, and suffused with a love for people and their foibles. The fun is in the diverse ways that Adrienne worked this recipe out. Was she aware she was doing this?I doubt it. She wrote her scripts very quickly and these stories just came out of her without her bothering to analyze them.


I believe that the above clips fall within the requirements of Fair Use. My aim is to get more people to watch her films; I want to increase the profits of the copyright-holders.  On the page where the clips are linked to, there is elaborate information on how you can purchase and rent the films, including WaitressSudden Manhattan, I’ll Take You There, and Serious Moonlight are all available on Netflix Instant Watch.